Thursday, April 23, 2009

17 Again (2009)

We have heard a lot recently about Zac Efron and whether or not he’s a movie star. On the basis of 17 Again, I would say he certainly is. The movie’s a teen comedy, moving him out of the pre-teen musical land, and will probably surprise parents of young kids with some of the more suggestive humor. It’s a comfortable, sturdy, mid-sized star vehicle all his own, and it doesn't hurt that the camera loves him. He harkens back to the young leading men of the mid-eighties with a little Michael J. Fox here, a little Kevin Bacon there, a little Tom Hanks here, a little Tom Cruise there. That’s not to say he’s a great actor, but he does solid work here as a thirty-seven-year-old man (at the start, Matthew Perry) who gets transformed by a magical janitor (played by Brian Doyle-Murray, Bill Murray’s brother) into his seventeen-year-old self. Efron’s charming, likable, and manages to convey the situation fairly well. I was surprised by the emotion he could convey in scenes such as the one when he describes holding his daughter for the first time.

His daughter, of course, is no longer a baby. She’s in high school (and played by Michelle Trachtenberg) along with her brother (Sterling Knight). Both young actors do a fine job here, but the real heavy lifting goes to the supporting cast of adults. Leslie Mann (delightful as the leads’ soon to be ex-wife), Thomas Lennon, and Melora Hardin (along with Jim Gaffigan and Margaret Cho in very small roles) sell even the dumbest lines. Pay close attention to a date between Thomas Lennon, as Perry/Efron’s best friend, and Melora Hardin, as the school principal. As I watched it I found myself thinking: if this isn’t funny, why am I smiling?

The whole movie’s like that. There’s not a moment I couldn’t see coming (there’s even a use of the old cliché of a character vehemently, repeatedly, opposed to doing something immediately followed by a cut to the character doing it) and yet I was improbably entertained, or at least distracted. This isn’t a particularly involving movie, but it sure goes down easy. The hook of the movie is a fairly generic body-shift comedy. It’s never surprising but it’s puzzlingly entertaining. Director Burr Steers has created the kind of glossy, unchallenging entertainment that Hollywood can grind out from time to time. As far as recent body-shift comedies go, 17 Again is more fun than 13 Going On 30 but not quite as fun as the latest Freaky Friday.

It’s the commitment of the actors who help tip the movie over the edge. Even though they have surely seen all the same movies we have, they appear invested in it, which in turn helps sell it back to us. When Efron dances with Mann, it’s not a teenager dancing with an older woman. It plays like a husband and wife, a feat that could only be accomplished by good acting. Of course, Mann doesn’t know that Efron’s her husband and the two of them inject some unexpected nuance into the relationship.

Earth Day was this week. Why not see a recycled film? It takes junky movies like Vice Versa and Like Father Like Son, mixes in just a dash of Big and 18 Again and ends up with a competent result. Every once in a while, particularly a scene involving Efron spinning a basketball while insulting a bully, a scene comes across as awkwardly written but for the most part this is simple, unchallenging entertainment. And I must confess, when the big clunky cliched moment of revelation comes, I was satisfied. Twinkle those eyes, Mr. Murray! Run, Mr. Perry! There's a movie to conclude.

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